Centuries before gaslighting became a “thing,” the Jewish people’s enemies had already weaponized the tactic. One could even say they invented it.
From ancient times and down the ages, a false narrative about Jews often presaged inevitable violence. Moreover, it was often used to justify or minimize the evil after the fact.
The gaslighting of the Jews, by which I mean all of the distortions, feigned justifications, excuses to look the other way, phony apologies and denial of the reality that manifest incidents of Jew-hatred are what they plainly are, was historically a double-edged sword wielded to justify the persecution and torment the persecuted.
Then, as now, social, religious, economic and political power brokers, and influencers of various stripes, coalesce to forge a toxic discourse about Jews and antisemitism.
We also find ourselves confronting a false narrative that besmirches the magnitude and uniqueness of Jewish suffering (the Shoah) and the righteousness and necessity of Jewish liberation (Zionism). Amnesty International’s latest hit piece on Israel will add more poison to that narrative, as will the ongoing abuse and misuse of Holocaust remembrance, recently typified by outrageous comments by public figures like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Whoopi Goldberg.
Kennedy desecrated that remembrance by implying that Anne Frank had it better hiding in an attic than those who oppose vaccination policies during the current pandemic. In a discussion about the banning of the book “Maus,” Goldberg explicitly denied that the Holocaust had anything to do with race and instead portrayed it as one group of white people killing another, stating: “This is white people doing it to white people, so y’all gonna fight amongst yourselves…”
While the narrative is fed by that rhetoric and even viler content, physical attacks increasingly feed it as well. Like other recent antisemitic attacks, last month’s siege on the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas constituted a tragedy in three acts followed by a post-credits scene that doesn’t alter the plot.
It is a plot structure to which we have become accustomed: A virulent antisemite attacks Jews; officials minimize, universalize or outright deny the attacker’s antisemitism; and influencers amplify this message to the public. When corrections are later issued after the fact, the damage is already done.
Particularly egregious with respect to Colleyville were initial comments by President Biden and the FBI’s Matthew DeSarno. The former expressed uncertainty about why the terrorist targeted the synagogue and the latter stated that the attacker was “singularly focused” on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community.”
This phenomenon is especially pronounced when, as in Colleyville, the profile of the perpetrator (a British Muslim of Pakistani extraction) doesn’t easily allow influencers and power brokers to advance their own broader agendas.
For example, while some people might remember the murderous antisemitic attacks perpetrated by white supremacists in Pittsburgh and Poway, few would recall the deadly rampages on Jewish targets in Jersey City and Monsey, both carried out by black assailants.
How many have ever heard about the crowd in Jersey City that gathered on-site after that attack, which included individuals who blamed Jews for what had happened, called for their expulsion, and praised the attack?
Two years later, who remembers the local board of education member, Joan Terrell-Paige, who in the wake of the Jersey City attack issued a hate-filled post on Facebook that smeared Jews and asked readers to consider the message that the terrorists were sending?
As for Monsey, how many recall that attack victim Rabbi Yosef Neumann eventually died of his wounds? How many are aware that the perpetrator, Grafton Thomas, has still not faced justice?
On a national level the answer is clear—practically no one.
When we peel back the layers of the narrative, we learn that we would be fooling ourselves to think that Islamists, minorities poisoned by antisemitism and the political far-left are its only contributors.
While the unhinged Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is the scion of a famous Democratic family, many of the protests about issues relating to the pandemic are comprised in no small part by people from the right wing of the political spectrum, among whom are many who have no compunction about making disgusting comparisons to the Holocaust, wearing yellow stars and the like. This phenomenon has not sufficiently been condemned by major figures on the political right.
We must not give a free pass when politicians with strong records on Israel nonetheless manage to contribute to the problem in their own way. When Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, reacted to the recent neo-Nazi demonstration in Orlando by tweeting the question “Do we even know they’re Nazis?” she was doing just that.
DeSantis did nothing to remedy things by then portraying himself as a smear victim for being accused of not taking a firm enough stand against the neo-Nazis. Given all of the recent antisemitic activity in his state, this was a particularly tone-deaf response.
Beyond looking outward, we need to look inward as well. Ultimately, the most dangerous false narrative for Jews is the one we tell ourselves, a time-honored Jewish “custom” that shields the Jewish psyche from the tenuous nature of our existence in exile.
We should therefore remember an interesting fact about Colleyville. The turn of events that led to the survival of the three Jewish hostages was itself the subject of lies, one claiming that they were rescued by law enforcement and the other that they were released by the terrorist himself.
Both of these descriptions about the resolution of the Colleyville synagogue siege were wrong, and like so much of the falsehoods about Jews, contradictory. The reality was that the Jewish hostages evaluated the situation and ultimately, with G-d’s help, took decisive action to save themselves.
If we can learn to act in that spirit in a broader sense, there is no doubt that we can free ourselves from all of the false narratives that confront us by the only means that have ever worked in our people’s long history.
Eric Ruskin is an attorney and a member of the Board of Directors of the Israel Independence Fund.